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I receive numerous questions about childhood sexual activity, and have replied to quite a few of them here on my website. Usually, the questions come from someone who feels guilty about something that he or she did as a child—fondling another child, or being touched by another child, for example, or playing around sexually with a pet. Sometimes the question will come from someone who feels that he or she was victimized by an older friend or sibling, and asks, "Was I molested, or not?" Often, the questioner wants me to decide if the behavior does or does not constitute "sexual abuse," or if sexual contact between siblings does or does not constitute "incest." Here is an example:

Dear Dr Saltzman,

You said: "Ordinary sexual experimentation between children within the same family is definitely not incest." Is there a non-ordinary sexual experimentation that is harmful? I had two separate experiences: at age 7-13 with my older brother, which was confusing and distressful and felt like a cat and mouse game, and then at age 13 with my female cousin which was part of a role playing fantasy game and felt mutual and no big deal. When I was seven, my brother was assigned to help me with math homework. While we were working on it, he touched my genitals, first over, then under my clothes. He kept on talking about math while he did, so I just handled it by keeping on working on math. I guess I kind of froze. Whenever we were alone, the same thing would happen, he would touch me while doing something else and I would just freeze and pretend nothing was happening.

When I got older, as a teenager it was a bit different, in that he would try to be more seductive, asking if I wanted a massage, trying to catch me undressing, pinning me to the ground and tickling me until I begged him to stop, then he would start touching me and guiding my hands to touch and stimulate him. he would take me to see a movie and it would turn out to be a pornographic movie. And yes, part of me felt a kind of physical thrill, and part of me was scared at being caught but mostly it was a feeling of being stalked. . . . With my cousin it happened one summer when I spent the vacation at her house. we were both 13 and I guess a bit immature cause we played house and make  believe games like cowboys and we would put on a record and pretend to be girlfriend and boyfriend dancing and then we would lie on the couch and kiss each other on the lips (were both girls) and hug each other. I have a good relationship still with my cousin and talk with her once a month, but I avoid my brother and seeing him is painful. So, these two seem like two different things to me, and i wonder why?

How do you understand these two different childhood experiences?

Thank you for responding, I appreciate the clarity of your answers.


Carol (age 48, Ontario, Canada)

And here is another:

Dear Dr. Saltzman:

I would like an honest, unbiased opinion regarding some events in my past.

Many years ago, when my sister and I were approximately 8 and 13, respectively, we stumbled, on one of our usual hikes, upon the remnants of someone's sexual encounter. Among the items we found were a bed sheet, used condoms, and a copy of Juggs. We both examined the magazine, and took it home with us.. She, in fact, kept the magazine and I only recall seeing it a few times after that.

A couple of weeks later, while in my room, my sister began masturbating in front of me with a Barbie doll. This was the beginning of our sexual play, which lasted for what I estimate to be somewhere around 18-months to 2-years. We engaged in many activities, which included genital/genital contact, attempted cunnilingus, and very nearly sexual intercourse (At the last second my sister changed her mind, and we did something else instead). It was not uncommon for me to reach an orgasm with ejaculation.

In general I never forced, coerced, bribed, or rewarded my sister for what we were doing. Neither did I threaten, bribe, or coerce her to be 'silent' about what we were doing. Only one time did I try to force her to do anything. I tried to force her to perform fellatio on me, and I was not successful. I never tried to do that again. . . .

This question is something that I have been able to find no answer to out on the web—What is the difference between Sex Play, and 'Real' Sex? Also, what does in fact constitute normative sexual play activities. . . are there any activities that are abnormal? . . .

Gus, 29

Lawrence, KS

In my replies, I generally take the position that sexual experimentation is a normal part of child development, and that the things that children do to investigate their bodies and to try to satisfy their developing curiosity about sex are not equivalent in meaning to what those same things would mean if an adult did them. I usually counsel those who write to understand their past behaviors as innocent childhood experiences which should not be a source of guilt in the present. Although I have repeated this point of view in various ways at many places on this site, I continue to receive questions from people who offer a new set of facts, hardly different from those already presented by a previous questioner, upon which they ask me to comment.

Since I do not have time to keep replying to the same kind of question over and over, I wish to put this issue to bed (sorry for the pun) once and for all, and I will do it in the form of a brief "review of the literature," as it is known in academic practice. In other words, in addition to my views on this subject, I will present the views of some other workers in the field who have written about this topic, and then leave it to the interested visitor to come to her or his own conclusions.

Before doing that, however, I would like to observe that sexual guilt is, in my view, an unfortunate and deleterious learned behavior—neither something natural to human beings, nor anything useful or wise. This guilt, fueled and perpetuated principally by organized, doctrinal religion, is simply passed from guilty parent to child, leaving the child believing that being sexual is somehow shameful, and that being curious about sex, and wanting to experience it is a "sin." This mistaken understanding of child development prevails in both Islam and in Christianity (and in Judaism for that matter), but is found also in the belief systems of those who reject the "book religions" in favor of doctrines which they consider more benign, more advanced, and more "philosophical." In Buddhism, for example, thousands upon thousands of men and women are encouraged to lead lives of sexual abstinence, and to what end? In fact, many of these monks, inculcated in sexual guilt from early childhood, believe that they are gaining so-called "merit," by avoiding being sexual, which "merit" will somehow (magically?) bring them to "enlightenment." If there really is a spiritual reality to be discovered, why would avoiding sexuality provide more information about that reality than living ones natural sexuality? How can the Pope or the Dalai Lama possibly know anything at all about sex or about the lives most of us lead? After all, their entire experience as human beings has involved steering clear of their sexuality—not experiencing it and coming to terms with it, but avoiding it.

ask dr-robert

Now, before coming to the views of others in a brief review of the literature, I will quote a bit from a previous "ask the psychologist" question to "dr. robert." I was asked, in a long letter, to address this question: "How is childhood sexual experimentation different from incest, and when is sexual experimentation abnormal?" I answered this way:

Childhood sexual experimentation between two children of roughly similar ages is normal. Most children have had sexual contact with other children at times during childhood, and this is an expected part of child development. In keeping with their judgmental and largely negative understanding of human sexuality, religious fundamentalists, prudes, hypocrites, and other purveyors of "morality" often try to demonize any kind of sexuality other than straight intercourse between legally married partners. These sex-hating, sex-fearing types frequently attempt to portray childhood sexuality as something wicked, claiming that a child's interest in sex, or that child's experimenting sexually with others is somehow perverse or abnormal, but this is simply mistaken. A child's interest is sex is entirely normal, and, in fact, is genetically programmed in the human brain.

ask dr-robert

There is no age limit, about which you asked, because curiosity about sex and sexual experimentation at any age are normal features of human life. This does not mean that sexual acting out between children, and particularly between siblings, should be condoned, allowed, or encouraged, but only that most instances of it would best be seen and understood as a kind of developmental play, very different indeed from adult sexuality. Certainly projecting onto the child the adult fears, adult superstitions, adult disappointments, and adult religious biases towards behaviors which arise innocently, and in response to powerful, often stormy processes of physical and intellectual maturation is unfair to the child--a mark of unskillful parenting.

The prohibition of incest is a legal matter and also a cultural taboo, but obviously incest is both desired and experienced by many, because if it were not, there would be no need for such strong taboos against it. By the way, incest usually refers only to actual sexual intercourse. Other forms of sexual contact between close relatives is not technically incest, and in some cultures even is quite normal. For example, according to psychologist Gregory Bateson, in traditional Balinese families, mothers routinely stroke the penises of their young sons, and such behavior is considered no more incestuous than breast-feeding. Ordinary sexual experimentation between children within the same family is definitely not, in my view, incest.

When incest or any other sexual contact takes place between an adult and a child, that constitutes, by definition, child abuse. In fact, physical contact is not even a necessary criterion for child sexual abuse, since such things as talking sexually to a child, showing the child pornography, exposing ones sex organs to a child, and other such sexualizing of a relationship with a child may also qualify as abuse. But sexual contact between two children of roughly similar ages and intellectual capacities does not, and cannot, by definition, constitute child abuse.

ask dr-robert

OK, that's my opinion. Now let us see what some others in the field have said:

According to such researchers as De Jong, 1989, Litt and Martin, 1981, and Rosenfeld, Bily, Siegel, and Baily, 1986, by the age of two or three years, children learn to identify themselves as boys or girls. Between the ages of three and six, they begin to notice anatomical differences in genitalia, and, driven by curiosity, begin to explore their own genitals via masturbation, and to explore the genitals of other children by means of such games as "playing doctor," playing "mommy and daddy," and by means of childish attempts at sexual intercourse. By middle childhood, these researchers found, modesty about nudity has been learned, but still sexual exploration, often with siblings, continues.

According to Cavanagh, Johnson & Friend, 1995, Between forty and seventy-five percent of children will engage in some sort of sexual behavior before reaching 13 years of age In these situations, children are exploring each other's bodies while also exploring gender roles and behaviors, and their sexual experimentation does not indicate that these children are child sex offenders.

Bancroft, 1983, says that genital play usually manifests in boys between six-seven months of age; and in girls at ten-eleven months. It may take place in groups, and sometimes utilizing inanimate objects such as dolls. This behavior, according to Bancroft, is part of a normative period of children exploring all of their bodies, may be a sign of healthy psychosexual development.

ask dr-robert

According to Reinisch, 1990, over half of all six and seven year old boys have engaged in sex play with other boys, and more than a third of them with girls, while more than a third of six and seven year old girls have engaged in such play with both other girls and with boys. This play includes playing doctor, insertion of objects, and attempts at intercourse. Reinisch views such play as part of a normal progression from the sensual elements of bonding with parents, to self-masturbation, and then to sex play with others. By the age of eight or nine, according to Reinisch, children become aware that sexual arousal is a specific type of erotic sensation, and will seek these pleasurable experiences through various sights, self-touches, and fantasy, so that earlier generalized sex play shifts into more deliberate and intentional arousal.

ask dr-robert

When this experimentation is carried out with siblings, although I, along with many others, do not call it "incest," some researchers (Bank and Kahn, 1982, for example) do consider it incest, but those researchers who do use that term distinguish between abusive incest and non-abusive incest. Bank and Kahn say that abusive incest is power-oriented, sadistic, exploitative, and coercive, often including deliberate physical or mental abuse. Whether carried out with a family member or not, Finkelhor and Hotaling, 1984, consider sexual contact to be abusive only under these circumstances:

1. it occurs with a child less than 13 years old, and the perpetrator is more than five years older than the victim or if the child is between 13 and 16 years old, and the perpetrator is ten years older than the victim, and,

2. coercion, force, or threat is used.

Laviola, 1992, says that sexually abusive behavior depends upon the use of power, authority, bribery or appeal to the child's trust or affection.

De Jong, 1989, offers four criteria to judge whether sexual behavior involving persons under 14 years old is abusive or not:

1. an age difference of more than five years.

2. use of force, threat, or authority.

3. attempted penile penetration.

4. physical injury to the victim.

According to De Jong, if one or more of these is present, the behavior is abusive, whereas if none is present, the behavior must be considered normal sexual experimentation.

ask dr-robert

Although opinions vary somewhat, we have seen, I think, that sexual play among children is seen by all of these researchers as both a normal part of childhood development, and as not abusive unless a large difference in power or authority exists between the participants. Since this is also my point of view, I will no longer personally reply to questions on this topic, but will refer those who write to me with such questions to this page. If, after reading this page, you still have questions about whether you were abused by a friend or sibling, or about whether you were an abuser, or about whether or not your sex play was "normal," please understand that I have come to the limit of what I can do via written replies to email questions, and that you must now consult a professional for personalized therapy to address your concerns.

Be well.

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